War of Currents… again?

Every engineering degree covers electricity, it’s kind of important to everything engineered by man. Same with a science degree: electrical interactions are a large part of nature. In chemistry, biology, and propagating to all the other sciences.

Outside of scientists and engineers, most college physics courses would cover electricity, at least the principle differences between alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC).

Even outside of that, AC vs. DC gets mentioned in the occasional web comic.

As part of any coverage of electricity, there would be a chapter, a footnote, or some mention of the War of Currents: An ideological battle between backers of each form of electrical power, each convinced their side is superior to the other. The history lesson usually concludes with AC winning the battle around 1900. As AC works better with our power generation, power transmission, and power consumption.

Or more precisely… AC works better with power generation/transmission/consumption technology of 1900. The world has changed a lot since.

Machinery of 1900 run on AC, but modern electronics run on DC.

Old inefficient lights run on AC, but modern LED lights run on DC.

Coal-burning power plants churn out AC, but solar panels generate DC.

We never had a practical energy storage mechanism with AC, electric batteries have always been DC.

We tolerate AC-DC conversions on all of these things. Computers have an AC/DC power supply brick. LEDs make similar conversion. Solar panels have to use an inverter to convert their DC output to AC for use. All because our power grid is AC. And that’s not going to change for as long as AC is superior for power transmission.

But today I learned that, thanks to advancing technology, the economics of long-distance power transmission is tilting in favor of DC.

This is very interesting, because photo-voltaic solar power plants need a lot of real estate so they tend to be out in the middle of nowhere. A big factor in the economic viability of such projects is long distance transmission of power to population centers.

Combine the two, and it looks like all the pieces are in place for DC to make a come back.

I’ll be watching this space with fascination.

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